Self esteem, or feeling good about myself, has from time to time been “short of a full tank”, and this area of personal development has always fascinated me both in my work with clients and in myself; how to get it in the first place, how to hang on to it once you have got it both short term and long term, and where to find it again if the car goes out of control and crashes, as it inevitably does from time to time.
There are lots of books from every conceivable discipline and approach to areas such as self esteem and confidence, some bits of which are helpful, but that can be unsatisfying as a full package, as they “contain” rather than being visionary.
My impression of working with lots of people and many different organisations, is that issues with self esteem are apparent periodically, and even the most confident of people sometimes struggle, especially when they experience a series of difficulties at the same time.
This article is a personal view of what self esteem is, and my particular ways of creating coping mechanisms for when it’s in short supply.
What it is
My own take on true self esteem it is a “deep conviction and feeling in my own importance and value as a person, irrespective of my performance and behaviour.”
A good friend of mine involved in coaching and personal development, talks about a solid base of self esteem given to people growing up, almost as a gift of childhood. However, if this is not provided, then people end up having to “build their own”, or what you might call a learnt emotional stability. Most of the time, this serves them well in adult life, but things can revert to a default setting, when external troubles arrive, particularly when there are several things that go wrong at the same time.
I like images and metaphors as ways of encapsulating ideas, and one of the ways of identifying self esteem is a “self nurturing tank” or reservoir; this if the tank that you have inside that is like a reservoir; you use it all the time in giving to people, in supporting, in being with and there for your family and partner etc.
However, you need to fill it up for yourself, as well as giving out, or the reservoir runs dry; this may come from doing the things that you find energise you. For some these are “internally referenced” like reading books, or slipping off to have a quiet hot bath; for others these are about spending time with friends, or going out to play sport or watch a film.
Mechanisms for coping
Whatever image or idea works for you, I think it’s important to know there are “backstops” for times when things go wrong, along with your typical day to day approach to filling the reservoir to maintain good self esteem.
- There is something about recognising that the whole approach to self esteem, if you didn’t start with much and were not nurtured to believe in yourself, is a lifelong challenge. You need to keep going down the road, trusting that you are improving however slowly it seems, and accept the inevitable stumbles along the way. The whole road is the important thing, not one place on it; it just seems so at the time.
- One of the strongest coping mechanisms is what I call the “bounce back” facility. When an event happens; an argument, a criticism, being uncomfortable in company, a rejection for a new job, whatever it is, if the other approaches don’t work, then you can slide down to the bottom quickly. What I have found working with clients and myself is that the time down at the bottom has become shorter over the years, and at some point once the thing is processed and reflected on, you bounce back to normal. The real trick I guess is to reflect and learn each time from all that happens to you for next time, so it doesn’t affect you so much.
- Whilst the behavioural approach doesn’t always work with people, I do think there is a place for the whole concept of positive thinking; all that stuff about telling yourself that you are positive, bright and successful does sometimes work, except when things are really bad. I also remember an article written in a magazine years ago advocating being a “confidence trickster”; imagine you are that confident person, and you are part of the way there.
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has gained a lot of credibility in the last few years as being one of the strongest evidence based methods for developing coping mechanisms to deal with poor self esteem. There are several good books, including Melanie Fennel’s, which is practical and easy to read, and focus on things like working through in your mind, rather than your feelings, how bad things are on a scale of 1-10 when you are upset about an incident, what your good friends would say, and learning the art of perspective rather than “catastrophising” events
- Having people around you; a partner, friends, work colleagues (if you are lucky), who can support and nurture you in times of worry and anxiety is really helpful, both in terms of being understood and processing and understanding what went wrong, and how to take it from here.
- Having something that belongs to you as your “gift” that keeps you going. Increasingly I find reflection helpful; spending some time on my own each week thinking about the week, working out what went well, what went badly, what I have learnt and what I might do differently next time. It helps fill the “self nurturing tank”. I also love music and play in a band, and increasingly am enjoying fitness and daily workouts
- Instead of “feeling good, looking good” which is absolutely valid, turn it round as well and go for “ looking good, feeling good”; if you look good, dress well, and look after yourself, whilst it is more superficial ultimately, it does help your level of confidence.
- There is something about trying to minimise vulnerable situations; in my twenties I would have said the opposite and gone for everything out of pride or challenge, but these days I think more; why put yourself in a situation that you know is going to cause you problems if you are really worried about handling it; that promotion, that evening out with the people you don’t like; its something around knowing your limits. I’m not talking about out and out avoidance; just knowing limits, and not having to push oneself down what is perceived as an improving path, because it’s the “right thing to do”
- If it works for you, use metaphors, mental pictures to help with progress; the self nurturing tank or the boat at sea that needs 6 anchors to keep it stationery through a storm, but when you lose several anchors at once, the boat is going to rock in the storm.
Ultimately, from a day to day perspective, self esteem is about ongoing self maintenance, and understanding and nurturing the people and activities that make you feel good, minimising the things that don’t, along with having some personal strategies for when things go wrong and an acceptance that part of being human is that shit happens…
- Attached Extract from Tal Ben-Shahar article on happiness (author of Happier: learn the secrets to daily joy and lasting fulfilment)
- Stop Thinking, Start Living: Discover Lifelong Happiness; Richard Carlson
- Overcoming Low Self-esteem: Self-help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques by Melanie Fennell